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Central Washington University

CWU Receives $2.5 Million to Study Polar Ice Caps, Glaciers

To achieve a better understanding of the Earth’s rapidly changing polar and ice-covered regions, Central Washington University Research Scientist Paul Winberry and Professor Audrey Huerta were awarded $2,534,726 from the National Science Foundation. Their two-year grant, "Collaborative Research: MRI Development of Geophysical Earth Observatory for Ice Covered Environments (GEOICE)," will address key questions about the structures and dynamics of ice and solid earth.

Winberry and Huerta, who teach geological sciences at CWU, will develop a new mobile observatory to be deployed in ice covered environments such as Alaska, Greenland, and Antarctica. The observatory will be made of 125 seismometers (highly sensitive instruments that measure motions of the earth) deployed in the polar snow and ice. Records of seismic waves allow seismologists to map the interior of the Earth, and locate and measure the size of these different sources.

“We are essentially taking a CAT scan of the earth,” said Huerta, who has made several research expeditions to Antarctica in the past few years. Huerta studies the geology beneath the ice, and uses the seismographic record to make an image of the geologic features hidden beneath the massive sheets of ice. For example, during one of her excursions they found evidence of a sub-ice volcano.

According to Winberry, in ice-covered regions, such as Antarctica, both the ice dynamics and geologic history remain poorly understood. Scientific investigations of these areas are hampered by extreme weather, limited logistics, and difficult environmental conditions.

“While much of the work done on glacier ice-melt focuses on atmospheric causes, part of my work looks at the temperature of the earth beneath the ice,” he said. “Some areas are surprisingly warm, which can accelerate melting rates at the bottom of ice sheets.”If the earth beneath an ice sheet or glacier is warm, a thin film of water will form underneath the glacier, lubricating the base of the ice allowing it to slide into the ocean. These places where ice slides into the ocean can have significant impact on future sea level rise.”

Huerta and Winberry will collaborate with the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) to develop the new sensors, which are roughly 50 pounds lighter and use less energy. These sensors will be developed over the next 2 years and will be deployed during future research expeditions by Winberry, Huerta, and other U.S. investigators over the 15 year life span of the instrumentation.

In Antarctica, everything must be carried by plane or sled so the lighter weight of the sensors will allow researchers to transport and install more sensors at a time. The increased number of sensors to be deployed will also enhance the accuracy of Huerta’s and Winberry’s projections.

Winberry and Huerta hope to glean new insights from the sensors that will help other scientist attempting to use computer model to predict how ice sheets and glaciers act and to better understand how they will respond to climate change.

“This is information people can use to calculate how, and where, ice will flow into the sea and raise sea levels,” said Winberry.

Media Contact: Valerie Chapman-Stockwell, Public Affairs, 509-963-1518, valeriec@cwu.edu

Photo by Paul Winberry: Installing seismometers in Antarctica